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Columnist
Fighting fair over Fairness Doctrine
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 2/23/2009 12:25 AM

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In the air

Remotely interesting: The American Association of Retired Persons has organized a national help line for older viewers still struggling with the conversion to digital broadcast TV (now set for June 12). It's (877) 698-8068 and will operate weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. through the end of March.

Fox WFLD Channel 32 is joining with the Chicago Urban League to do a new urban-oriented news and entertainment program called "nexTV." The hourlong debut is set for 6 p.m. Saturday on Channel 32. The regular weekly half-hour program will air at 8 a.m. Sunday on Channel 32 and rerun at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on its Fox sibling station WPWR Channel 50. ... Sam Donaldson retires from ABC News next week. ... The first season of AMC's "Breaking Bad" is out on DVD Tuesday with a list price of $40.

End of the dial: WLS 890-AM's Mancow Muller ranks ninth on a list of the most influential radio hosts in the current Talkers Magazine. His WLS-AM comrade Rush Limbaugh tops the list.

The next local monthly Arbitrends ratings report is set to go out Wednesday.

So much for President Obama being a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. But just try telling that to right-wing talk-show hosts.

Obama this week made the point - with none other than the Fox News Network - that he is not backing revival of the Fairness Doctrine. "As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated," White House spokesman Ben LaBolt was quoted as saying on foxnews.com. That seems unequivocal.

Yet other, more liberal members of Congress - including Illinois' senior Sen. Dick Durbin - have said they'd like to see it renewed, and there have been recent pushes in Congress to see if it can't be rushed along with the rest of the new president's legislation in his first 100 days.

President Clinton recently told Mario Solis Marich on his progressive-talk KTLK-AM talk show in Los Angeles: "Well, you either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine, or we ought to have more balance on the other side, because essentially there's always been a lot of big money to support the right-wing talk shows," which he accused of pounding a "blatant drumbeat" against the new president's economic-stimulus package.

Yet, again, the president is not behind the move to revive the Fairness Doctrine, and the odd thing is that if anything, the issue is being kept alive by conservative radio commentators like Mancow Muller and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom air on WLS 890-AM. They cite the Fairness Doctrine as the worst sort of liberal meddling and a bellwether of just how far left Obama is going to push the country.

First things first. The Fairness Doctrine is to be distinguished from the Equal Time Provision. The Fairness Doctrine encouraged TV and radio outlets to address controversial subjects with attention to all sides of the issue. The other was about allowing candidates equal time and opportunity to address voters via electronic media in the midst of a campaign.

There was a time when both were necessary, back when there were only a handful of TV stations available, and before FM radio became a powerhouse. The Fairness Doctrine was created in the nascent days of television, and it got its strongest support 20 years later in an 8-0 decision by the Supreme Court in Red Lion Broadcasting vs. FCC, with Justice Byron "Whizzer" White insisting: "It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount." That's because broadcasters operate on the public airwaves.

With cable TV on the rise, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler quashed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 as part of the Reagan administration's general march toward deregulation, arguing it restrained free speech, and since then - much like the mythological "Family Hour" of prime time - it's been cited on the left as an ideal too good for this TV world.

Nervous Nellies suggested it would be the end of fair debate in this country, but while I agree that rich corporations have too much say and too much influence in the media, and while I wish the major broadcast networks were encouraged more to take on legitimate controversial issues, rather than celebrity gossip, I have to say the fair and open exchange of ideas has worked largely as the Founding Fathers suggested. There is a much greater range of opinions and actual debate now - from Mancow, Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on the right to Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow and, well, I would have said Keith Olbermann on the left a few weeks ago, but I'm going to hold off on him for now - than there was 22 years ago.

Look on Obama's official White House issues Web site, and under technology you'll find no reference to the Fairness Doctrine. And I think without him pushing it, it will go nowhere in Congress.

Yet Google the Fairness Doctrine, and you'll find any number of right-wing sites pressing the panic button on the issue of government regulation. That's because they want to seize on this as a cause and claim victory when it fails.

Fine, but it's likely what we'll see instead is an Obama FCC that pushes to diversify media ownership and obliges the broadcast media to serve the public interest, the very ideal White defended 40 years ago. That's the course advocated by the grass-roots media watchdog group Free Press, which likewise has not supported renewal of the Fairness Doctrine. There are other ways to make sure the broadcast media do their civic duty, without keeping score of every liberal or conservative thing said on the public airwaves.